Crusty old Chester Cromberg was in his usual spot, crouched on the bank of the Middle Fork swishing muddy gravel in his rusted gold pan.
“Howdy Mac!” barked the grimy weekend prospector as he spit the remains of a hand-rolled butt into the river.
“How the hell are ya, Chet? Still searching for the Mother Lode, I see.”
Cromberg — if that’s even his real name — claims he found a nugget so big that he quit his regular job in 1977. He said he used to run a bed and breakfast. But Chester Cromberg says a lot of things.
He says he lives in a cabin. I think he lives in a car.
Yet when the skinny, wrinkled old dude speaks, I always listen. He’s sort of a poor man’s Howard Stern.
So I tossed my pole on the bank, sat on a rock beside him and dangled my feet in the river for another 20-minute session of “The World According to Chester.”
“How are things going at Cam Play Man?” he said, tossing a few stones from the dented pan into a plastic sack. Cromberg rarely finds gold, but he’s a sucker for pretty little rocks.
“It’s Camp Layman, Chet,” I said. “When are you ever going to get that right?”
“Ha ha ha, I know how to say it,” Cromberg said with a chuckle that made his boney naked shoulders bounce. “I just like saying Cam Play Man... PLAY MAN. Get it?”
“I get it, Chet. You are a witty guy.”
“How are things going at Play Man? Still cleaning all those toilets?” he said, one hand stroking his dirty gray beard.
“I don’t have to clean them anymore,” I said. “But they are cleaner than ever. Things are going great. Thanks for asking.”
“Are ya gettin’ psyched up to be the tax man for the county?” he said, still staring into his pan.
“What are you talking about, Chet?”
“That T-I-T thing. Isn’t the board of city slickers in Quincy raisin’ it up a couple notches? That’s what I read in yer paper.”
“Chet! ... You can read?! ... I had no idea. I always figured you for a lookin’-at-the-pretty-pictures type of guy.”
Cromberg made rare eye contact after that dagger. He tried to look mad, but his eyes were smiling. “You got me good that time, Mac. Ouch. Stop it.”
His fake anger morphed into a 10-second belly laugh that ended with a few raspy coughs.
“Sorry, Chet. I promise I won’t make you laugh again. It’s too painful to listen to.
“First of all, it’s called T-O-T not T-I-T,” I continued. “And the supervisors aren’t raising a tax. They don’t have the authority to do that. They are simply putting it on the ballot so we can vote on it. In case you hadn’t noticed, the county is in pretty bad shape, Chet.”
Cromberg was silent for a few seconds. When he realized I was finished he said, “You gonna vote for it, Mac?”
“Not sure,” I said. “Would you?” I knew Cromberg hadn’t voted since Nixon was re-elected.
“No way,” he said. “It’s not fair that the county gets more of the cabin owners’ money for nothin’. I say let the supervisors come and clean yer toilets. You can pay ‘em for that. That’s fair.”
“Chester, I thought you said you could read. ... The TOT is NOT the lodging providers’ money. It’s a tax that visitors pay when they spend the night. The resort owners like me just collect it. The tax money is used to help pay for the services visitors can use when they are here, like police protection, roads, parks, that sort of thing.”
“Yep, and that’s exactly where the money’s gonna go,” Cromberg said. “It’s gonna help pay for deputies.”
“So what is wrong with that, Chet?” I said. “Hey, if anyone wants to keep deputies employed, it’s me. They saved my butt after a guy broke into my house a couple weeks ago.
“But I do understand your point, Chester. The lodging providers should have some say about how the extra money is spent. After all, we are the ones who have to explain to our guests why we are raising our prices.”
“Exactly, Mac! That’s only fair!” Cromberg said.
For the next five minutes, Cromberg actually let me have the floor, or in this case, the rock.
I explained that only lodging providers can vote on any proposed TOT increase. Even though it’s on the ballot, the rest of the county residents can’t vote on it.
I said lodging providers could have absolute control of how additional TOT money is spent if they would form a tourism improvement business district (TBID).
A TBID would allow lodging providers to essentially tax themselves. Instead of those tax dollars going to the county general fund (as it would if the current TOT increase is approved), the money would go to a fund managed by a council of lodging providers.
They could use the extra $100,000 (which is about how much the county would get from the 2 percent TOT increase) for marketing tourism. A lot of cities and counties in the state are already doing this.
However, if the lodging providers approve the current 2 percent TOT increase the supervisors put on the ballot, it’s the county’s money.
“That TBID thing sounds like a no-brainer,” Cromberg said. “Why aren’t you doing it?”
“Actually, we are,” I said. “There is a group of motivated people who have formed the Plumas County Tourism Recreation and Hospitality Council. I’ve heard they are trying to form a TBID.”
“Well they better getter done quick,” Cromberg said. “Otherwise the county’s gonna get the extra 2 percent in November.”
“There’s really no need to hurry, Chet. Remember, any TOT increase has to be approved by a vote of the lodging providers themselves,” I said. “If less than 51 percent vote for a TOT increase in November... it’s dead.”
“I get it,” Cromberg said. “The lodging providers could vote it down this year, and then vote to approve it next year after they form a TBID. Then the money would be theirs.”